In The Mississippi Delta, Floods Are All Too Familiar

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Originally published on Nexus Media.
By Marlene Cimons

The moment Cherri Foytlin felt that familiar squish under her feet, she was overcome with dread. “As soon as I stepped into that water, I knew. I thought, ‘here we go again,’” she said. “Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change should stroll through my hallway.”

Last year, six inches of water swept through Foytlin’s home in Rayne, Louisiana, wrecking walls, insulation, floors, furniture, clothes and toys, “anything we couldn’t pick up fast enough,” she said. Foytlin estimated the damages totaled $40,000, “and we’re still not completely recovered from that.”

Foytlin, who lives about two and a half hours west of New Orleans, is executive director of the environmental organization Bold Louisiana. She had just returned from the People’s Climate March in Washington when the latest round of storms delivered heavy rainfall, dangerous winds, and persistent flooding across Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and elsewhere. As storms passed through the Mississippi River Valley, a number of Mississippi River cities issued flood warnings.

“This idea that science doesn’t matter, or that it is something you can manipulate into a political ideal, is a form of violence against communities who are dealing with climate change,” Foytlin said, referring to the Trump administration’s climate denial and its threats to pull out of the Paris Agreement. “These storms just keep coming, one after the other after the other. We get a lot of rain in a very short period of time, and it seems like it’s becoming a pattern.”

The mayors of towns along the Mississippi River, currently coping with flood threats, likely would agree with her.
“We just don’t get normal spring rains anymore, we get huge downpours,” Brent Walker, mayor of Alton, Illinois said during a recent press conference on threats from recent storms. “These storms are becoming more and more frequent. This is one of the many consequences associated with climate change. We are now living in a world of extremes, and the Mississippi River is a good example of that.”

Climate change has made the air warmer. Warmer air holds more moisture. This leads to heavier rainfall, which can produce severe flooding. Downpours have become more frequent and severe in recent decades, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

The link between climate change and April’s floods. Source: Climate Signals

Alton has seen historic flooding in recent years. “Today we closed our marina,” said Walker. “It’s 25 years old, and in the last four years it’s been evacuated twice, which has never happened before.” He added, “we don’t just get patterns of mild weather. We get above-normal heat coupled with long, dry periods that dip us into drought.” Complicating flood risks, locks, dams and levies along the Mississippi River are in a poor state of repair.

Walker, along with mayors from Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas who also spoke with reporters, is part of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), a coalition of 75 river-area mayors committed to remaining resilient in the face of flooding and other natural disasters.

The river “is responsible for creating $500 billion of annual revenue, and directly supporting 1.5 million jobs, and millions more indirectly,” said Frank Klipsch, mayor of Davenport, Iowa. The river is “important on so many levels, from commerce to drinking water to recreation.”

The mayors said they were happy that the recent budget deal — which funds the federal government through the end of the 2017 fiscal year — included a $100-million FEMA grant program to help cities prepare for natural disasters. This year’s budget represents a fourfold increase over previous years, due in part to the efforts of these mayors, who worked with the lawmakers to ensure the funding.

Investing in such projects “can only save money, not cost money,” said Harry Rediger, mayor of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “These projects are going to pay for themselves many times over [as they will] prevent and save future flood costs.”

In March, mayors from cities along the Mississippi River met with White House officials and members of Congress to garner support for an $8-billion plan to make the region more resilient to future storms, floods and other events. Colin Wellenkamp, a spokesman for the MRCTI, said White House officials have not yet responded, but “the initial reception was positive.” The group is scheduled to return to Washington later this month “where we plan to make the case again,” he said.

While the mayors are coping with flood relief efforts in their own towns, Cherri Foytlin is mopping up her floors — again. Although blue skies made an appearance at the end of the week, she worries about the next deluge. She knows it will come.

“It’s stopped right now, but it’s going to continue in the future,” she said. “I don’t have enough money to move, or to raise my house. I don’t know what my options are, except to clean up — and rise up.”

Reprinted with permission.

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